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Wineka column: Newsrooms in the old days

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
When I leave the newsroom for home, I sometimes yell to whomever is left, “Let me know if anything stirs.”
The message is clear: If anything newsworthy happens, call me. At my age, of course, I hope nothing does disturb me at home. But any reporter learns to anticipate an editor’s voice telling him to put clothes on and see about a wreck, murder, fire, explosion or some other calamity.
It’s just part of the business.
Homer Lucas, the late reporter and columnist for the Post, used to make morning checks by telephone with some of his sources down in the Sheriff’s Department. As he ended his conversation, Homer always yelled into the telephone receiver the instruction to “Let me know if anything stirs.”
I embraced it and, as you see, have never learned to let it go.
To me, the phrase summed up a good part of everyone’s life in the newsroom. If I were looking for one of those six-word memoirs that are popular today, Homer’s goodbye line is what I would use.
When I came to the Post close to 30 years ago, I arrived toward the end of a time when newsrooms were what Carl Sessions Stepp describes as “grand and goofy” ó full of smokers, drinkers, card players and just plain characters.
I heard of the good old days when reporters kept liquor bottles in their desk drawers and newsroom parties ended up with ducks stolen from City Park taking up residence in a colleague’s house.
When the Sunday paper was put to bed early in the morning, the skeleton newsroom staff and men from the composing room would play poker until the sun came up.
Sometimes “correspondents” on out-of-town assignments sheepishly called the publisher from jail, asking to be bailed out.
Reporter Heath Thomas once got into an argument in the Post newsroom with Bob Jones, grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Thomas didn’t take kindly to a nighttime visit four Klansmen had paid to his house, and he let Jones know it.
Thomas eventually left the newsroom, only to return carrying a pistol. Managing Editor George Raynor stepped in between Thomas and Jones and prevented bloodshed, but afterwards Jones took out an assault charge on Thomas.
Things were different then.
In my early newsroom days, the police scanner still blared loudly from one corner of the newsroom. Telephones rang continuously. Cigarettes dangled from the mouths of reporters as they talked on the phone and took notes on what was then big and intimidating video display terminals.
The trusty Underwood and Royal typewriters had only recently been replaced.
Nothing was secret or sacred. Reporters and editors constantly shouted across the newsroom about something they had learned or what they were working on. And we tended to socialize after work because we were the only people who could stand each other.
There was a smugness and cockiness to the newsroom then. We usually knew something a day ahead of everyone else and looked forward to picking up the next day’s paper and reading our stories.
Veterans such as Lucas, Raynor, Rose Post, Jim Barringer and Wayne Hinshaw looked after me, tolerating my Yankee, journalism school background, which was mollified by my scruffiness.
Newspaper folks have always been a bunch of insecure misfits. We’ve never been able to imagine doing anything else and, truthfully, have no other skills.
Bob Greene, a longtime newspaper columnist and author, says we are imperfect people putting together an imperfect product while chronicling our imperfect world.
Today’s newsrooms have become meek, buttoned-down and antiseptic compared to what they once were. Blame goes to things such as technology, diversity, professionalism and corporate ownership ó all of which have their positive sides.
But I still hear Homer on that telephone.

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